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Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson Explains Epic Song 'Empire of the Clouds'

09/17/2015
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Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson recently sat down with Radio.com to discuss the band's new double album "The Book of Souls" and during the chat he went into details about the two songs that he wrote for the album "If Eternity Should Fall" and eighteen minute epic "Empire of the Clouds".

He had this to say about "If Eternity Should Fall": "the first song on the album, the one that opens the album, was actually written for a solo album and was demoed with Roy Z [who produces many of Dickinson's solo records] out in L.A. And the demo that we did is effectively almost identical to the Maiden version. Maiden just effectively copied what we'd done, a few minor alterations.

"So that wasn't intentional; I didn't even know I was writing for Maiden at that point. I was just writing an opening title track for what was probably going to be a solo album and which was actually probably going to be a concept album. And the spoken word that's at the end of that track is actually the beginning of the story. So it introduces this character, 'Hello, I'm Doctor Necropolis, and I'm formed of the dead. My own two sons, I gave them birth, and I filled them, their living corpses with my bile.'

"So yeah, you think, 'Ah, that's cool. What's this about then?' And you never find out because it goes off into 'Speed of Light,' and you think, 'Well, that was weird. What was all that about?'

"And I did say to Steve [Harris], I said, 'Look, what do you want to do about this spoken word thing, because it fits with the rest of my solo thing, but I'm not sure it makes any sense. It's kind of a non-sequitur; it doesn't go anywhere for a Maiden album.'

"'Ah,' he said, 'but it's got a lot of soul. It mentions a lot of stuff about souls in there, doesn't it?' 'Yes, it does, yes, it does.' He goes, 'Oh, it's all good then.' So okay, great.

"Another thing about that track is it is actually in drop D guitar tuning. It's the first time we've ever done it in Maiden. So there was much furrowed brows and consternation about that."

He had the following to say about "Empire of the Clouds," which is the longest song Iron Maiden has ever recorded at eighteen minutes: "You write the melody in little bits. And originally I had no idea I was gonna write this song about the airship, the R101 disaster and the story of it and all that and what the song is actually about. All I had was two or three little pieces written for separate things, actually, and one of them had a line, 'Mist is in the trees, stone sweats with the dew/The morning sunrise, red before the blue,' and it was, basically it was setting a scene: this is dawn, something is gonna happen. And the idea was, yup, it's gonna be World War I fighter airplanes take off, and they'll die horrible deaths and a song about that.

"Well, that song ended up as 'Death or Glory.' So I was still left with this little intro. So okay, something's gonna happen here; what happens? And I thought, well, maybe I can write some more stuff. And I'm sitting at home, and I've got artifacts from airships sitting around. I went to some auctions and bought some stuff; I've got the pocket watch from one of the survivors from the R101, I've got a tankard from the R101, I've got various bits and bobs of other airships. I went, 'Why don't I tell the story?'

"I just finished reading a big, sort of encyclopedic crash report of it, 600 pages on it. I decided that I wanted to tell this story. This is a fantastic story. So I thought, well, what am I gonna call it? So the book that I just finished reading was called To Ride the Storm, because it was the storm that finally finished it off, really, then caused the crash in the end.

"So I put the little pieces together, and when I got enough verses and pieces, then I started putting them in order, and one of the last things I put together was the actual intro, the little [hums tune]. That came almost towards the end.

"And I suddenly realized that that then enabled me to do like a little overture piece at the beginning, which I would state most of the little melodies that were going to come later and put them as one separate little piece on its own, and then we put some cellos and some bits over it and some other little counter-melodies.

"And I'm thinking, 'This is getting quite sort of classical.' I don't know s- about classical music. Anyway, it's a piece, and it's definitely an overture. Opening, setting the scene instrumentally. And then we just tell the story through the various transitions that dramatize it, that build up the ash of leaves, the masks, the people are clapping and cheering, we've got that scene in there. It's very cinematic.

"When I write, all the words that I write come from the scene that is playing in front of my head. And even when I sing other people's lyrics I have to create the scene in my head before I can probably sing the song. Even if it's maybe not the same scene they were thinking of when they wrote it, I have to do it for myself in order to animate the words right. But that's the way we create the song.

"'Empire' was not written with guitars in mind; it was all written on piano. I knew obviously the band are gonna play it, and it's gonna get heavy towards the end. But at no stage when I was writing it did I write it with guitars in mind. There was horns, there was cello, there were fiddles, there was all kinds of different percussion and things like that. And that thinking through those instruments gave me the melodies, 'cause certain instruments suggest certain melodies.

"And then I thought, 'Well, it gonna be interesting now, seeing what happens when you play them with electric guitars.' It's gonna get 'Maiden-ified' as soon as you do that, which is fine." Read the full interview here.

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